How to Take Control of Your Medical Test Results


I’m not sure how it happened, but over the years, my medical appointments and tests all seem to have ended up as summer scheduled dates. Of course that means I’m waiting for test results in the summer, too.

You know – all those annual or periodic things:  bloodwork, mammogram, bone density, dentist, optometrist…. I also check in with the dermatologist once a year (because I was that fair-skinned, freckled kid who, as a teenager, slathered on the baby oil at the pool – remember those days?)  And this year was, oh joy of joys – my year for a colonoscopy!

Yes – every one of those tests was scheduled in July and August this year. A lot of appointments – and then, of course, a lot of waiting for results.

This is one of those points about dealing with the healthcare system that has changed, drastically and dramatically, in the past 15-20 years. And of course – to no good outcome for patients! In fact – possible danger if we aren’t paying attention.

I’m referring to the fact that, in the old days, when we had a medical test, we could expect a phone call or some sort of delivery of the results. Alternatively, we were told that “no news is good news” – meaning, if we heard nothing then that meant everything was OK.

No longer! In fact, if we don’t hear back, it’s more likely because there is some sort of problem. That might mean the paperwork was misfiled, or that a couple of pages stuck together on your doctor’s fax machine, or that someone took a day off then got behind on email… and maybe that’s all it means.

But, dangerously, when test results get lost, then there is no telling whether the news was good or bad. If the results weren’t normal, and you never hear that news, then you could get sicker, or even die.

It happens every day. It happened to me!  In 2004 – when I was misdiagnosed, so I do know exactly what I’m talking about.

But it’s actually very simple for you to be sure it doesn’t happen to you. To be sure you get your medical test results:

  • Every time you have a medical test, ask when and how you will get the results. If your test is in a lab, they will likely tell you to expect to hear from your doctor who ordered it. In that case, ask when your doctor will receive the results.
  • If you do hear back – great!  Thank the person who delivers the message, and ask if there is anything additional you still need to do.
  • But if you don’t hear back within 24 hours of when you were told the results were delivered to your doctor – then call your doctor and ask. If they put you off (“We haven’t yet received the results from the lab…”) then ask when you can expect to hear from them. Stick with it until you have your results.
  • Further, next time you visit that doctor, ask how you can be sure results will be delivered to you in the future. Hold their toes to the fire! Sometimes it’s not the doctor’s fault you didn’t hear back. But it’s their responsibility, it reflects on them, and they’ll look into it – and hopefully improve your chances of getting your results the next time.

If all this is more than you think you want to handle yourself, it’s a great idea to ask your patient advocate to help you out, to keep track of results, and to help you formulate questions when the results are unexpected.

Finally ….  If you had the test because you have symptoms, or because something just doesn’t feel right, but your test results say otherwise (or vice versa!  If you think everything is just fine, and your test results say otherwise) – don’t be afraid to repeat the tests. Confirmation of something that seems odd is definitely good practice.

Graphic: When test results get lost, then there is no telling whether the news was good or bad. If they were not normal, but you never get that news, then you could get sicker, or even die.

It’s up to YOU to be sure you get that news.

In case you’re interested – throughout the Summer of Medical Tests, all of my test results were delivered exactly as expected except for one. “Summer” was the key, as the doctor’s summer vacation resulted in a hiccup in delivery of bloodwork results. Fortunately, no harm was done, and there was (thankfully) nothing problematic to report. But, hoo-boy! – they sure know now that I expect results when I’m told to expect them!

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